cindy sherman

Therese Lichtenstein: Your work has always been engaged in the relationship between fantasy, play, and the world of gender and sexual stereotypes. The sense of process and play comes through in your last show in that the poses and arrangements of the mannequins, accoutrements and settings did not seem preconceived. It reminds me of how children play with dolls. Could you talk about how fantasy operates in your work and why you stopped using your own body?

Cindy Sherman: My ideas are not developed before I actually do the pieces. It's good that you see it in that way. I never thought of the whole childhood thing and playing with dolls and dressing them up in regard to the newest work. For me it was out of boredom from using myself in the work, and feeling tied to that way of working. I became more interested and fascinated by the basics of what these prosthetic body parts were and I was just trying to use them without having to wear them myself. The whole series evolved from two mannequins — one female (the one positioned animal-like on all fours with the doll) and the other one male (the guy with the axe in the S-M scenario). These are the two most basic mannequins. It could almost be my other work except for the fact that they are mannequins and they are showing their sexual parts. I've done nothing abstract with the figure, and it's just a basic pose. I started out with these basic poses and it started to develop into different directions. I started taking apart the mannequins — just throwing body parts here and there. You know, if I wanted breasts I would just drape some breasts on the mannequin.

Lichtenstein: You must have felt an incredible sense of freedom in doing that.

Sherman: Yes. I loved it.

Lichtenstein: How did you feel substituting the mannequin body for your own?

Sherman: There was a little frustration because the mannequin can't move exactly the way the human body moves. It can only move in one direction. That's when I discovered I could take it apart. If I wanted the arms to go around the waist I would have to remove them at the shoulder and then drape them. That's where the playing came in — experimenting and taking it apart and seeing what I could imply when it comes apart and when I've put it back together again.

Lichtenstein: Your images ask us to interrogate the fascination, repulsion, and disgust that we feel for the grotesque. The body is, in a sense, out of control; it has gone haywire. In its hyperbolic artificiality it is obviously a simulacrum, yet the effect is human as well as artificial. The inanimate has become animate, registering the uncanny. Your pictures refer to stereotypical erotic and pornographic models from mass culture and high art without producing their effects. You take these familiar poses and defamiliarize them. Such visual disorientation makes us ask questions. What lies behind our gaze? What is the relation between cultural formations of sexuality, gender, and censorship, and the interruption and transformation of those signs?

Sherman: I am always surprised when I read or hear somebody say that they are X-rated or pornographic because they are all obvious plastic parts. One review said I used all these sex toys, such as dildos. There weren't any dildos in the photographs. They were just medical body parts that weren't made for sex.

Lichtenstein: For me they were totally unerotic.

Sherman: Good! Good! Yes, that's what I wanted.

Lichtenstein: And that's what came across. They were totally de-eroticized. They mimicked pornographic poses without producing their effects. They were like specimens.

Sherman: Right! Yes, they allude to pornography or X-rated photos. But it's definitely not like that at all. A few people that I would run into on the street would say, "Oh, you know I liked the show but I sure couldn't bring my child in there." I could sort of understand, I guess. But on the other hand they are just dolls.

Lichtenstein: Exactly. And I think there is a big difference between posing dolls and posing real human beings.

Sherman: Oh absolutely!

Lichtenstein: My first reaction to the show was a curiosity about how the other people in the gallery were reacting to it. I noticed a lot of self-conscious people trying to suppress their discomfort. They didn't want to be caught looking. The gallery's pristine "white cube" is converted into a macabre theater of memory traces of peep show visions, or of private acts of voyeurism. Yet such visions are subverted here, rendered dysfunctional, and we become uneasy with their echo. We catch ourselves looking and wonder what we are looking at. By self-consciously watching ourselves watching, by catching ourselves in the act, we interrupt the gazes of voyeurism, fetishism, and even narcissism. We are no longer invisible voyeurs but active participants in critical viewing.

Sherman: Yes! I got the feeling at the opening and at the other times I would walk into the gallery that people would look around and quickly leave. I think someone told me that they couldn't stay in the gallery very long. At the opening I felt really bad because I thought that people didn't really like the work because they were leaving. But I think the show made people very uncomfortable. But what was also very weird was that a few people told me that they thought the downstairs close-ups of genitals were real. They thought that live models were used. Somebody else thought there were live people in the drip piece. I think what I realized from this is that people couldn't bear to look closely enough to realize that it was fake. That pink vagina — there's a square hole there.

Lichtenstein: The close-ups of the fake genitalia renders them abstract. There's a play between what's recognizable and what's unrecognizable. What do you think the desire for the "realistic" model is about?

Sherman: I don't think its that they wanted it to be real. I think they were so embarrassed by just glancing at it that they couldn't continue looking at it closely enough to see that it was fake. They just saw the pink and the shapes and said, "Oh my God! That's what it is!" They just assumed it's real rather than studying it and saying, "There's a square hole in there — of course it's not real."

Lichtenstein: But don't you think that kind of reaction is in part one of the important aspects of what these images are about-having the viewer deal with feelings of discomfort?

Sherman: Absolutely! I would hope that these images would make people confront their own feelings about sex, pornography, or erotic images and their own bodies.

Lichtenstein: That's what's so powerful about them.

Sherman: A couple of times people told me that a certain image turned them on which horrified me. Perhaps it revealed more about those people.

Lichtenstein: Which images in particular?

Sherman: The girl with the doll, and the one in which the doll is going down on itself — the headless mannequin with its head between its legs.

Lichtenstein: Your images also raise questions about censorship in our culture. Could you discuss this?

Sherman: The censorship issue is important. I definitely acknowledged the fact that I was influenced not only by Jeff Koons's show but by the whole NEA censorship problem. I felt that my previous show (before this one) was so commercially successful that it made sense to go out on a limb in these difficult times. Since I really don't expect people to buy my art anyway, and because I don't have to worry about funding or being censored at this point, I thought I might as well really try to pull out all the stops and just make something that directly deals with sexuality and censorship without compromising my values.

Lichtenstein: Where did you get the mannequins?

Sherman: Through catalogues. The best one was this catalogue of anatomical body parts. I didn't know what the anatomical catalogue would be. I thought it might contain novelty items which I have lots of. But when I got it I saw that it was for doctors, and probably medical schools or hospitals. The mannequins and parts were intended to be used by students to practice various medical procedures on. You name it: they have it. They have sections of arms that you can just practice injecting; or hands. There's this thing called a cut-up hand that you can practice cutting and suturing up.

Lichtenstein: What are the parts made out of?

Sherman: Latex — very realistic looking and feeling. Some of the stuff is really creepy. They sell several different models of these mannequins.

Lichtenstein: Some of the faces looked a lot like you. Was that intentional on your part?

Sherman: No! You know why I think that's true? I think it's that sort of blank stare the mannequin has that I had in a lot of my other works.

Lichtenstein: You used to mimic the look of a mannequin to capture the mass reproduction of stereotypes of femininity and the embalmed effects of such role-playing.

Sherman: Yes! I never realized why I had this stare on my face. It's sort of an ambiguous look. You don't really know if it's a gaze of terror or excitement. It's like a blank expression. There was one image in the show that a lot of people thought was me. I was surprised because these people should know better. The mannequin that wears the crown — they swore it had my eyes. Everybody thought that I had placed my head behind the mask. I guess it's because I used a different mannequin head for that — one that had painted-in eyes. Maybe because it was so different from all the others, some people thought that I just had to put myself in there somewhere.

Lichtenstein: What did you do to transform the different body parts?

Sherman: At first I was really excited to get all this stuff but also intimidated by it. It was frustrating to think about what I wanted to say with all these sex parts. As you mentioned earlier, I didn't have any expectations or plans about what I would do. It was really just through playing with these rubber things that I developed the work. I started out with obvious pornographic poses. In manipulating the mannequin to make other poses, I found out that since all the joints just work in one direction, it could only work in a limited number of poses. I would have to take apart the legs to spread them in a certain way, and do the same with the arms and head. Actually, the mannequin came with all the internal organs, even though I didn't get them. If you want you can even operate on it. I liked the limbless trunk of one of the mannequins, especially with one of the sex organs there. It's terrifying and it's also this weird object. I started out in more realistic terms in dealing with all the body parts. I liked when they moved toward abstraction, making the figures seem less realistic but not in such a hideous way that it looks severed.

Lichtenstein: It looks as though you're playing with a puzzle. They are conceptually grotesque. They are obviously artificial but seem both real and unreal. It's the theatrical grotesque. They're fascinating. The way you manipulate the light increases their eerie artificiality.

Sherman: The lighting is the easiest part. It's the same light I've been using. The difficult part was figuring out what to do with the body parts to make them seem diverse enough. Every time I would shoot a male or female version of the body parts I would feel like I was at a dead end because I had already taken apart all the limbs. In order to progress to the next step I would start to add pubic hair.

Lichtenstein: Did the pubic hair come with the mannequins?

Sherman: No. The mannequins came in a basic rubber color. The first two pieces were without any make-up added to them at all. Gradually I would add color to make it seem a little bit different and then later the pubic hair to make it seem even more different.

Lichtenstein: And the bruises on the back of the feet?

Sherman: That was just dirt from dragging it around my studio.

Lichtenstein: I want to return to your process of manipulating the dolls. Can you describe it in more detail?

Sherman: It's exciting, fun, and frustrating. It's like trying to figure out a puzzle. How do I suspend the torso in such a way, and attach these arms around the waist in this way? I would have to rig something in order to hang this body part from something in my studio and position the legs. It was like inventive play. It's very sculptural. Once I set the thing up, I start playing with the camera angle, then I have to change it again, to get it even more interesting.

Lichtenstein: The arrangements appear arbitrary and un-natural.

Sherman: All the breasts in the pictures are novelty items. They're not part of the medical mannequins. They're made of a harder plastic. The vagina piece is made out of foam and I painted it. When I received it in the mail, I realized it was intended to be used to practice pulling a baby out of it. It seemed so stupid.

Lichtenstein: In one of the images a string of sausages comes out of an old woman's vagina. This piece is extremely disturbing because the "natural" functions of the vagina have been replaced by associations of the sausages with excrement and penises.

Sherman: I find that character so sad and poignant. And yet, I guess there's also a defiant side to her, as well as a resignation suggesting, "This was my life." I started this piece by using the vagina. I had so many different products from the catalogue. I tried not to only use the mannequin, and that's why I did a lot of close-ups of those penises and vaginas that didn't belong to the mannequin — like using this pink foam vagina. I was also experimenting with bellies and breasts that I already had. I did use the mannequin's arms and its head, but nothing really clicked until I experimented with different masks that I had, including the old one. The clear and lucid eyes coming through the weathered face seemed so very touching. And then I thought, What do I do with the background? It would be great to have some bear-skin rug on which she poses for her lover. I didn't have a bear-skinned rug, so I thought about what would look like one. I started putting my wigs around. They seemed more like the scalps of centuries of women who have been grinding out babies or whatever for their men.

Lichtenstein: So the sausages are a metaphor for female production and reproduction.

Sherman: But they are also phallic-looking and reminiscent, as you said, of shit. I also have other sausages, a white one, but I thought the image should be more repulsive, so I used fat, dark brown sausages.

Lichtenstein: Why are fat, dark brown sausages more repulsive? Can you talk about your fascination with repulsion?

Sherman: I don't know. It's probably juvenile. I have this juvenile fascination with things that are repulsive. It intrigues me why certain things are repulsive. To think about why something repulses me makes me that much more interested in it. I feel that I have to explore it.

Lichtenstein: I'm interested in how things come to signify repulsion in our extremely puritanical culture. Your images absolutely explore our fascination and repulsion with the grotesque. There is a grotesque, comic realism in your work that creates a crisis of category and meaning. Your variety of erotic scenarios interrupt the discrete, culturally given boundaries of male/female, gay/straight, organic/inorganic, recognition/misrecognition. All these dualities are confused together in ambiguity. The S-M images especially tap into our culture's fears and desires.

Sherman: I think I was trying to diversify the implied sexuality of the images. I wanted some images to look straight. I wanted some to look gay, some of them to be masturbatory, some of them S-M. Some of them would deal with being peed on or excrement. Each of them would address multiple issues. I didn't want to make a discrete gay image or a heterosexual couple. I wanted to make it ambiguous so you wouldn't know whether it was a woman's nose or a man's nose that's right under the genitals of that man. AIDS was also an issue I wanted to address. There are no actual condoms — but allusions to condoms. Part of the terror I wanted to imply in the sexuality of the images is very much from the fear of aids and the terror that it engenders in the sexuality of our culture.

Lichtenstein: There's a strong sense of death that permeates. Issues of death and mortality have always been an important component of your work.

Sherman: Yes, death. I don't know why. I didn't realize it until just a couple of years ago. Someone once interviewed me and brought up the question of death, and I totally denied it. I'm not obsessed with death, and yet, when I started thinking about it, I realized that I actually was. It's one of those mysteries of life — its terrifying and grotesque. It's something we can never know about until it's too late.

Lichtenstein: And we can never really know about it because we are always on the other side of it. Duchamp's epitaph on his tombstone reads, "Besides, it's always the others who die."

Sherman: So it's fascinating. And not in a way that I'm afraid of it. I'm more afraid of the way that I would die then of dying itself. That's where the terror part comes in. The whole idea of, let's say, being in a car accident. You never would have dreamed when you woke up one morning that you and your car would be smashed up, and you might have to go to the hospital. You start out your day totally unaware of what's in store. It's absolutely fascinating to me.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.